Pastry chef Merri Schwartz has been working in the Vancouver food scene since 2002. Born in Comox, B.C., she spent her early years in the Kootenays before moving to Vancouver as a child. Her career has taken her from Vancouver to France, where she trained at the Valrhona Chocolate Institute, and back again, leading her to serve as pastry chef at some of B.C.'s finest food establishments including the King Pacific Lodge, C Restaurant and Raincity Grill. Schwartz, 33, recently received a Vancouver Mayor's Arts Award for Emerging Culinary Artist.
In 2005, Schwartz founded Growing Chefs! Chefs for Children's Urban Agriculture. The Vancouver-based, non-profit organization pairs volunteer chefs with elementary school classrooms. With the help of chefs, students learn to plant, grow and cook their own vegetables. Schwartz's vision that sustainable practices will become integral to living and cooking in Vancouver has sprouted up in neighboring communities and across the country.
How did a pastry chef get interested in what kids eat?
I was lucky enough to be raised by amazing parents-back to the land hippies who grew huge gardens and made everything from scratch. So many kids don't have that privilege. When I started working in fine dining, I became aware of this vast store of knowledge among chefs about sustainability, nutrition, agriculture. and no way to share it. I wanted to provide a way for chefs to engage with the community and share what they knew, and working with kids only made sense. It's not only an effective way to create lasting change, but it's so much fun! Define urban agriculture.
Urban agriculture is a tough one to define. The term is often used to refer to the vast restructuring of urban spaces to incorporate food-producing operations into densely populated areas-serious stuff! However, I prefer to think of urban agriculture as any way of growing food in a city. It can mean taking over an empty lot to grow corn, keeping chickens in your backyard, or simply growing basil in a pot on your windowsill.
How many children have participated in the Growing Chefs! program?
Oh my goodness, tons! At a quick count, I would guess around 3,600. And that's just in the classroom gardening program! Hundreds more have joined us for urban outreach activities, workshops, and events.
How do you get kids to eat their veggies? Or excited about gardening?
Honestly, it's pretty easy. There's something so magical about planting a seed, nurturing it, and watching it grow. In our first visit to the classroom, we get the kids planting. Examining seeds, hands in the dirt. When they make the connection between what they're doing and the vegetables they're eating, they're hooked.
Who are some of the volunteer chefs who have participated in this program?
We've literally had hundreds of chefs volunteer over the seven years we've been operating, and they're all completely amazing. I will say that the wonderful Andrea Carlson was one of our first volunteers and sits on the board of directors to this day. For me, seeing two of my first chefs-Robert Clark and Robert Belcham, who both had a huge influence on my career-in the classroom was pretty great. So many of the more prominent chefs in Vancouver have been involved with us-Wendy Boys, Angus An, Ted Anderson, JC Poirier, Scott Jaeger. I feel like I'll leave someone out if I keep going so I'd better just stop! It's been incredible to work with all these amazing people.
How can parents raise awareness of food sustainability with their kids?
Get kids involved! In everything-cooking, grocery shopping, meal planning, gardening, making lunch. Being engaged with the food you eat is the first step.
What has been the biggest impact?
It's been amazing to see how excited and empowered the kids are after participating in the classroom gardening program. We get letters from parents thanking us for getting their kids hooked on arugula! But for me, the most meaningful part has been watching the change in the chefs who participate. Being a chef is hard-you work crazy hours, long days, weird schedules, it's tough and stressful, and you're kind of cut off from the rest of the world. To see these chefs realize that they have something important to contribute to their community-that's really special.
It's been hard watching restaurants get super engaged with local growers and supporting sustainable practices, then turning back to the big corporate suppliers when the recession hit. I completely understand the struggle to keep a business running, but ultimately, we are going to have to learn to absorb the real cost of producing food.
I'm pretty proud we're still around. Honestly, keeping a non-profit running is tough, and I'm just glad we've managed to grow consistently every year while maintaining our grassroots values.